Romney’s ease with people has surfaced in several guises. He’s a car guy. Five years ago, his family gave him a ’62 Rambler for his 60th birthday, honoring his dad’s last year at the helm of American Motors, 1962.
At the 2008 Detroit auto show, Romney chatted easily with Ford officials about octane and the paint job on a new red Ford pickup. His wife, Ann, peered into the back seat, and there were jokes about how it was so roomy one could pitch a tent there.
The genial Romney was evident often during the first years of his governorship. In 2004, as he introduced a new kind of transit fare card, Romney joined the Kingston Trio in singing Charlie on the MTA, the tale of a man stuck on the Boston rail system because he didn’t have enough money to pay the fare. He said he was fulfilling a childhood ambition.
That at-ease Romney has since disappeared from public view. The dad and neighbor has been replaced by the more calculating politician trying not to make a mistake.
When he tried to get lyrical about cars during a February campaign stop in Detroit, he spoke about how his wife drives “a couple of Cadillacs” — and Democrats quickly saw fresh evidence of Romney as an out-of-touch patrician. His out-of-tune singing at a Florida campaign stop in January has been replayed endlessly by comedians mocking him.
More troublesome to opponents is Romney’s harder, businesslike edge, caring more about money than people.
He came under fire after Bain Capital aided another firm in buying an Indiana office supply plant 18 years ago, when Romney was on leave, running for the U.S. Senate. The new owners required employees to reapply for their jobs, usually with lower pay. The workforce was cut about 25 percent, and shortly thereafter the plant closed, when Romney was back at Bain.
Romney said he was not running Bain when the company was bought. But, he told McClatchy, “I have to tell you, if a business isn’t doing well, sometimes you have to perform surgery.”
History suggests that a Romney White House would put the emphasis on doing what works.
“Getting America on the right track does not require a person who knows all the answers. It requires a person who knows how to get all the answers and to get them done and that’s what good leaders do,” he said.
Supporters point to his success running the 2002 Winter Olympics for clues as to how he would run an operation under ceaseless public scrutiny. Kem Gardner, a friend active in Utah affairs, asked him to take over the scandal-plagued Games.
Romney saw a fresh corporate challenge, ordering a “strategic audit,” where officials talked to everyone involved in the Games. At the end, Romney recalled, “We had a pretty good map of what was right and wrong in the business, of what had to be fixed, and which things were urgent and which were long term.”
Perhaps ironically, since Republicans are vehemently opposed to higher taxes, Romney at the time found that budget-cutting alone would not save the Olympics. “So the answer to our budget problem would have to be new revenues — marketing and sales,” he said.
The Olympics gave Romney a national reputation as an effective fixer, and his political timing was ideal. In Massachusetts that year, nervous Republicans were concerned that Gov. Jane Swift was vulnerable. She left the race and Romney ran as a reasonable, open-minded centrist.